Technology can play a key role in finding solutions to big problems. First, we have to build diverse teams of innovators to lead the way. Hackathons provide a great opportunity for anyone to experience coding and see how technology can be used to address serious issues. As I contemplate my New Year’s resolutions, I hope to do all that I can to encourage everyone who has an interest in computing to participate in a hackathon—as either a hacker or a sponsor.
Microsoft Research was pleased to be a sponsor and supporter of Americas Datafest, a hackathon that took place in November 2013. The hackathon was organized by Teresa Bouza, Deputy Bureau Chief of EFE and Knight Fellow at Stanford University. Teresa believes that the rapid spread of mobile broadband has the potential to help us address the challenges facing society in a data-driven manner. To explore this potential, she brought together programmers, engineers, journalists, NGOs, data scientists, and others for a weekend of intense, multi-city collaboration to address important issues related to migration in the Americas.
The hackathon demonstrated that technology experts, working in partnership with subject matter experts, could generate creative and promising ideas that can make a difference. We know that events like these not only help grow the next generation of diverse computer scientists and innovators, but also communicate the message that technology can help solve the world’s greatest problems.
I’d like to hand this over to Teresa to discuss the event in more detail.
—Rane Johnson-Stempson, Director, Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections
Before I begin, I would like to say a few words about the issue we wanted to address with Americas Datafest. While immigration to the United States may be the most visible aspect of migration in the Americas, human flows throughout the region are complex and evolving. For example, Mexico is becoming a destination country, thanks to its growing economy and there are significant patterns of population movement within Latin America.
The idea behind the hackathon was to inspire contestants to build apps that make public and crowd-sourced data accessible and useful for migrants. We also wanted to create tools that facilitate outreach and data collection by NGOs and researchers. Ultimately, such efforts can provide evidence to inform immigration policies across the region. I invited subject matter experts from the United Nations, the World Bank, and NGOs in the United States and Latin America to submit challenge topics, which our participants then used as a basis for brainstorming project ideas.
The event was held simultaneously in 20 cities across 11 countries and each location nominated two top teams for our global awards. Their projects covered a diverse range of ideas. Harvard students focused on facilitating immigrants’ integration. Other students from the United States, Venezuela, Mexico, and Brazil built tools that can help migrants in general, whether they move domestically or abroad.
Health was another prominent subject. The team at Fusion, the new joint venture between ABC News and Univision, created a project that will allow the TV network’s audience to gather their personal data to improve their understanding of their own health; the aggregate data can be used to examine the major health issues within the demographic. Like this project, many of the projects can be adapted for other parts of the world.
The winning projects were:
¿Dónde estás?: A measurement and mapping tool to search for Central American migrants in Mexico
Health24: An application that helps migrants receive basic diagnoses and correctly identify and use over-the-counter drugs
Invio: A secure and easy-to-use mobile application that gives immigrants control over how and to whom their remittances are distributed
Migratio: A safety-focused database of migrants that includes tracking and geomapping features
Salvaviajes: An SMS/web communication platform for crowdsourcing alerts on migration-related issues within Central America and southern North America.
—Teresa Bouza, Deputy Bureau Chief at EFE, and Knight Fellow, Stanford University
Readers may be interested to note that the Microsoft Research International Women’s Hackathon 2014 is scheduled to take place April 25 to 27, 2014, on university campuses around the world and live at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. At this year’s event, participating women students have the opportunity to design a software application to address one of the following challenges: (1) increase women’s participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors, or (2) put a halt to texting while driving. For more information or get involved, visit International Women’s Hackathon 2014.